Movement Profile: Nesreen Hasan

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Nesreen Hasan is a third generation organizer who works with AAAN and works with college students.

How did you come into movement work and why do you think it is important?

My family's been in the movement for a long time. My grandfather was one of the founders of the Arab American Community Center and later, in 1995 they filed to become a non-profit and became the Arab American Action Network (AAAN). I started organizing in 2012 but you could say it’s in my blood because my family members were one of the first Arab American organizers in Chicago.

I would say the reason why I came into this work is because I'm from the community. AAAN organizes with working class Arabs who want to change systems but need to meet their basic necessities or needs first. The Arab American Action Network’s vision is my vision as well. I really feel that a lot of things that are holding our community back is because our community doesn’t feel empowered. That's why I jumped into this work and that's why I think it's important. We've been in this city, we've been here for such a long time and we need to make our voices heard. People need to know who we are and know the struggles that we go through. I think it's important not only because it’s who I am and the community I grew up with but a better empowered community is a better community for everyone.

This moment of heightened racism and xenophobia is, sadly, not a new experience for the Arab and Muslim community in the US. How have you seen the young people in AAAN’s youth organizing respond to the challenges of this moment differently than young people in the past have responded to similar experiences?

For many years, Arab and Muslim Americans have been experiencing racism. It can be traced through the Iranian hostage crisis, the first Gulf War, 9/11, and then the Iraq war. This is not new.

With our youth, one thing I am observing is that they are reaching out to older generations. I’m not saying that is something new as previous generations have also done this. The youth are learning about what can they change and learning from older generations’ mistakes. They're not excluding people by their age group. They're bringing the elders in and the different generations are learning from each other, which I think is beautiful.

Another difference is that, in the past, I would say there was also this mindset of trying to prove we're “good Americans” or seeming apologetic where this youth group is unapologetic. We're challenging systematic oppression. We’re not challenging only individual acts but we’re addressing the root causes. It's horrible and sad when someone commits a hate crime. Our youth are asking if that person is part of a system that enables them to commit that crime or that act of hate. I think that's what's amazing about our youth is that they're challenging this in a way where they're unapologetic and they're addressing the root causes of the issues.

AAAN uses an intersectional framework for its organizing. How do understand this framework and what do you value in it?

Through AAAN’s framework, I’ve learned a lot. It really showed me that we will not see liberation until everybody is liberated. In the history of the United States, when the Irish came here, when the Italians came here, when everybody came here, they rode on the backs of indigenous and Black folks. So what we learned is that we were all in this together. For example, my community cannot be liberated if there is no justice for the Black community. My community cannot be liberated or live in peace, if there is no justice for the LGBTQ community or for the Latino community. All of our issues are very intersectional. Our community is a community of immigrants. We have people that are undocumented. So how are we not to going to go and support OCAD who do powerful organizing with the undocumented community? How can we not support the Black Lives Matter movement when the same forces that are oppressing our people back home are training the police here with military grade weapons?

What they've taught me is that you don't just support other movements because your movement relies on it or because you share a similar experience. You support other movements because other movements are fighting for the same human rights and everybody deserves that.

What have you noticed happening in the conversations on intersectionality of movements between young people and older generations?

There is an organization that was founded by a former AAAN member. Her name is Camille Odeh and she founded the Southwest Youth Collaborative. It was an organizing center for youth on the southwest side. It had predominantly Black, Latino, and Arab youth working together. A lot of AAAN is modeled after their organizing model. It is leaders like her and leaders who went to college and organized with the Black student groups and Latino student groups as well that set the groundwork for this powerful intersectional analysis that frames our organizing today. They set the groundwork for it and our youth have made those connections on their own but they did some of the groundwork.

There are folks in the community, who are great people, who adore our youth but, simultaneously, they critique our youth because these community members have their “good American” narrative. These community members believe that we have to prove how good and professional we are and how successful we are. Many of these community members are stuck in a model minority mindset. Our youth are the ones that educate those members of the older generations that think that way. They challenge them which I appreciate.

#MeToo and the Women’s March have received much attention over the last years. How do you relate to these movements?

I think it's amazing that these movements are happening. It still took us till the year 2018 to have this discussion and to call out those perpetuators. I just hope these movements don’t forget that there are many women who are still silent. Charlene Carruthers from BYP100 made a great point about #MeToo when she affirmed the movement’s importance but stressed that we should also remember that most of those women who were able to speak out were from Hollywood. We need to make sure that the voices of a waitress or a fast food worker are amplified and heard just like these Hollywood stars. I hope that we elevate everyone's voice in the movement regardless of class. I hope that we continue these movements and continue to hold people accountable. I hope that this won’t just be a hashtag for 2018 but will continue on for the rest of our lives.

Are there other leaders or other groups that you think are supporting the amplification of the voices of all women, not just Hollywood stars?

Many groups have been having these conversations before #MeToo went viral. I would say the #MeToo movement really helped us with our points that we've been trying to get across but this is not new. Our own organization has called out sexual violence and we've always had it in conversation. The immigrant rights movement has been working on it, BYP100, Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. This is the importance of intersectional organizing as many groups tie sexual violence to White Supremacy and to all of these other “isms” that are connected as well. Male fragility is connected to sexual violence, which is connected to male supremacy. It is all connected in the end.

What do you think Crossroads Fund's role is in movement work?

I mean funding is important, let’s not downplay that. I can’t lie about that as it really did help our youth work. Additionally, I would say showing up to our events, showing bodies and bringing bodies. That presence really shows our youth that folks are in support of us. You guys already do that as Jane and Emily come to many of our functions. Also, networking. We know Crossroads Fund works with many organizations that are doing great work in Chicago. How do we bring these organizations together even if we don't work on the same issues. We do different forms of organizing but how can we learn from each other? Sharing strategies, skills, and building relationships is important.

What is one thing that people can do to support the work of AAAN and other groups/organizations that you’re connected to?

Funding and donations are important because we have staff that work over 40 hours a week but they get paid part-time. We do need resources to do the work that we do. We always need people to show up to our events, engage in our campaigns, and ask questions about how they could help and what skills they could bring. We have folks who volunteer with us who are good with graphic design or good at giving workshops on certain issues. Just even coming to our center and asking these questions about what they could do is very important.

What does it look like to be working with college students in this moment?

College students are older than high school youth but they still need to learn. They're passionate but they don't have a lot of representation on campus. There's so many issues that they are passionate about whether it's women's rights, LGBTQ rights, or other rights, they don’t necessarily have advocates. My work is to encourage them to be vocal, get involved with organizations, not just AAAN but others. For example, I had a student who had a professor who wanted her to write about Arabs in a certain way. I told her, this is how you're going to write this, this is your narrative, and you need to explain that to him. She did that and she got an A. He didn't question. She just needed someone to tell her that even though he is your professor, even though there is a form of hierarchy, you can challenge him. So, even an example like that, that’s just empowering to them.

Learn more about the Arab American Action Network and our 2018 grantees.